Following the Guadalhorce

A friendly little Sardinian Warbler hopping around outside my window was the first bird I saw on my last full day in Spain. I’d heard and seen countless others over the course of the vacation, but I savored the quiet moment watching it forage. I knew that once I returned to my home an ocean away, I wouldn’t be able to see this species, or any other in its family, for quite some time. The approaching end of a foreign vacation can feel a little bittersweet, but that’s no excuse not to continue squeezing as much fun and excitement as possible from the final hours. Miriam and I set out for El Chorro a bit after 8 AM, but the GPS struggled to get us where we needed to go. We arrived at the famous Caminito del Rey around mid-morning, and we found that the weekend crowd for this popular tourist trap was larger and unrulier than we had expected. The long waiting lines and the prospect of shuffling along the trail with a herd of humanity convinced us to seek adventure elsewhere.

Fortunately, the immediate vicinity of the trailhead had plenty to offer, so we checked out the scenic riverside cliffs of Desfiladero de Los Gaitanes Natural Area. We had to traverse a long, dark tunnel from the road to reach the trails, and we miraculously had the walkway to ourselves on our first pass. I’ve experienced total darkness underground before, but the tiny pinpoints of light at either end of the passage made for a surreal sensation with no depth perception to accurately gauge the distance. The scenic gorges and surrounding forest on the other side were bustling with bird life, including siskins, serins, and a handful of vocal Red Crossbills. A congregation of Eurasian Griffons riding a thermal caught my attention, and as I searched through the seemingly uniform flock for oddities I noticed a smaller bird near the top of the column. The raptor, though little more than half the size of the vultures, was quite large and obviously longer-tailed. When it banked and showed its underside, I saw a streaky white breast contrasting with its dark wings. Bonelli’s Eagle, one of the characteristic species of the Spanish mountains and I species I’d been looking for all week! Not a bad prize considering that we got shut out of the main attraction itself.

Next door neighbor There's a light at the end of the tunnel

We eventually departed the valleys and headed for the coast, following the lazy track of the Guadalhorce River. Our final birding site for the trip is considered one of the ultimate hotspots in all of Andalusia for avian diversity. Desembocadura del Guadalhorce, the river mouth estuary, is situated between the Málaga airport and the city itself. Its location along the shore of the Mediterranean and its surprisingly rich habitat makes it a magnet for migrants and rarities alike. We spotted a Booted Eagle circling over the wetlands when we set out on the trail: it was a pretty crazy experience to triple the number of eagle species on my life list in just one week of birding! There were several observation blinds looking out over the lagoons, offering an opportunity to survey the local birds at close range without disturbing them. A small flotilla of White-headed Ducks napping under some overhanging brush were a welcome sight, since this endangered cousin of the Ruddy Duck had been giving us the runaround at the other locales we visited. I performed a quick seawatch while Miriam snapped some photographs in the wetlands, picking up Great Crested Grebe, Northern Gannet, Sandwich Tern, and a flyby Great Skua within 5 minutes. I was pretty impressed with the wildlife we observed during our brief time at the river mouth, but all good things must come to an end. This was a pretty fantastic place to end our Spanish birding expedition.

That's a positive sign  And mäni interesting furry animals

After lunch, the rest of the day was spent making final preparations for the flight. Miriam and I took some time to explore the streets of Málaga after dark, unwinding and decompressing from the craziness of our whirlwind roadtrip. I ended up tallying 95 lifers out of the 125 species observed during the week, and we covered roughly 727 miles on the road before returning our temporary car to the rental outfitter. I expect that this vacation will go down in my personal record books as one of my all time best. There may have been a few target misses here and there, and I would have loved more time to fully soak up all that Spain has to offer, but we both had a blast on our first major trip together. Getting to see the natural beauty of a whole new continent for the first time was an incredible experience. I can’t wait to see where our travels take us next.

Next stop, New York!

Year List Update, February 24 – 236 Species (+ Bonelli’s Eagle, Red Crossbill, Booted Eagle, White-headed Duck)

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Serranía and Salt

I stepped out on to the balcony in Ronda and watched color return to the valley below as squawking flocks of Red-billed Choughs wheeled overhead. It was a dramatic, marvelous scene to wake up to, but we weren’t lingering to take in the view. Shortly after sunrise, we started out through the labyrinthine, narrow streets to collect our car from the parking lot. A few Eurasian Siskins could be heard chittering in the trees nearby before we hit the road. Our plotted course for the day was based on a combination of productive-looking eBird hotspots and nearby locations mentioned in Andalucía Bird Society blog posts. The amount of detailed information readily available on the internet really helped to make this trip as successful as it was!

What a way to wake up!

A pair of Long-tailed Tits briefly popped into view in a bush along the road as we came around a descending switchback. Miriam unfortunately missed getting a look at the adorable little fluffballs, and when we arrived at Cueva del Gato she had similar bad luck with a here-then-gone Coal Tit. Not to be deterred, she was the first to spot a Gray Wagtail foraging at the edge of the stream, and she also got to enjoy Eurasian Wren, Blackcaps, and her ever-favored cormorants. We next headed towards the Llanos de Libar area of Sierra Grazalema National Park, working our way along a rough, unpaved road through some prime alpine habitat. The rocky conditions eventually got bad enough that we decided not to push our luck any further. We had to stop short of the oak grove that apparently lay some distance ahead, but I caught sight of Black Wheatear, Rock Petronia, and Rock Bunting before we made it back to the concrete.

A swirling storm of Crag-Martins and some distant Great Crested Grebes floating on a reservoir were the most interesting discoveries in the vicinity of Zahara de la Sierra, a picturesque little town perched on the mountainside. They had a castle and everything! The area seemed to be a corvid hotspot, featuring a pair of ravens, a lone Jackdaw, and a small gathering of choughs. We noticed that large groups of Eurasian Griffons were starting to take to the skies above the rocky crags, and I’d heard from local experts that eagles can often be observed soaring above these circling masses of vultures. We started driving higher into the mountains, pausing at Garganta Verde to check for activity. It was a super birdy site, but most of the tiny songbirds that sounded interesting stayed well-hidden in the brush.

Blossoms in bloom The Green Throat

Eventually we arrived at a popular mirador, or lookout, called Puerto de las Palomas. Previous reports had spoken of Ring Ouzels, Blue Rock Thrushes, and Alpine Accentors that frequented the rocky slopes nearby. We found no sign of the smaller species, but the griffon show was pretty spectacular. A constant stream of the giant raptors flew past us at close range as they departed their roosting cliffs to forage for carrion. Some of them provided incredible views while moving along the ridgeline between thermals. We also enjoyed the company of a pair of amorous Peregrines, watching as they prospected potential nest sites and courted one another. When we finally returned to the car and prepared to leave, a Golden Eagle appeared high above the parking lot. It had been too long since I’d seen one of these majestic predators, and it was a much-anticipated lifer for Miriam.

Gyps through a portal, that's a Griffon Door! Vulture culture

The back half of the day saw us driving east towards Fuente de Piedra, where we hoped to score some waterbirds and open country species in the late afternoon. The saline lagoon is an important resource for a wide variety of species, but the region is most famous for its huge breeding population of Greater Flamingos. The bulk of the birds were little more than a shimmering, pink smudge on the far shore, but a few dozen were stomping around in a pool adjacent to the entrance road. The evening light made the graceful birds positively glow, and it was great to see them well after all of the distant encounters on the trip.

Small groups of Jackdaws bounced back and forth between the visitor center’s roof and a nearby field, noisily calling to each other the whole time. A buffet of shorebirds probed the muddy edges of the water features, including Golden-plovers, Lapwings, snipes, and stilts. A pair each of Little Stint and Little Ringed Plover were nice, unexpected additions to my life list. Several types of waterfowl were also present, including a male and female Shelduck. Miriam had been hoping to reunite with the species, and seeing the birds in adult plumage was almost like seeing a new species all over again.

We managed to locate a solitary Pied Avocet further out the trail, much to my adventure buddy’s delight. The species had been on her wish list since she excitedly pointed out the “Fancy Avocet” during our first review of possible targets back in October. I’m of the opinion that all the members of the family Recurvirostridae are pretty snazzy birds, but I have to admit that this one was especially good-looking.

A close encounter with a cute and fearless baby rabbit and a variety of fluttering songbirds were the highlights of our long walk back along the lakeshore to the car park. We spent some time at sunset watching for the alleged local Little Owls, a common bird that we both strongly desired and somehow missed the entire vacation. A Common Sandpiper feeding at the edge of the flamingo puddle offered some compensation, and the flamingos themselves really looked impressive in the rapidly fading daylight. As nightfall approached, we hopped back in our vehicle and started off into the hills once again.

Evening stroll  Da bun!

I was thankful that we left Fuente de Piedra when we did, because the winding road to Valle de Abdalajís was challenging enough even when I could see. The bed and breakfast we’d booked didn’t have any food available because we hadn’t warned them in advance of our arrival, but they were able to point us to an open restaurant just a short walk down the road. So much of our trip was spent on the move, that it was often difficult to find time to eat! Whenever we did, though, the meals were usually quite impressive. It’s hard to complain when you’re having too much fun to remember food, honestly!

Year List Update, February 23 – 232 Species (+ Eurasian Siskin, Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Eurasian Wren, Gray Wagtail, Black Wheatear, Rock Petronia, Rock Bunting, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Great Crested Grebe, Golden Eagle, Little Stint, Common Shelduck, Little Ringed Plover, Pied Avocet, Common Sandpiper

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Damn, Strait!

Being able to see a different continent from the one you’re standing on is a rare treat. On the beach outside our temporary home in Tarifa, the northern coast of Africa was visible about 9 miles away. This stretch of water is the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, which makes it a legendary location for watching migration. Seabirds and marine mammals moving between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic can be observed from shore with ease, and many species of soaring travelers choose to take this shortcut rather than wasting valuable energy on long over-water crossings. I’d reached out to the naturalists at Centro Internacional de la Migración de las Aves, otherwise known as CIMA, to ask about prime vantage points for getting in on the action. They informed me that seawatching could be rewarding from basically any coastal location in the region, and they also provided detailed information on where to scan for northbound raptors. I awoke to beautiful conditions on Thursday morning, and I immediately set out to try my luck in the field.

Light winds and unlimited visibility made for a fantastic morning surveying the surface of the sea. Miriam slept in a bit longer while I checked out the local bird life. Kentish Plovers were immediately apparent scuttling among the Sanderlings, and it was impossible to ignore the throngs of Yellow-legged Gulls. A procession of Northern Gannets streamed by to the west, heading towards the open ocean, and I picked out a few flocks of Cory’s Shearwaters migrating in the opposite direction. A circling Great Skua was a welcome surprise, and there were small numbers of Sandwich Terns on the move as well. I also glimpsed two distant birds rising and falling at the horizon line as they worked their way westward. They appeared to be small tubenoses, but try as I might I could not discern enough detail to confirm their identities with certainty. Even though the expected species is the would-be-lifer Balearic Shearwater, I just don’t feel totally comfortable checking them off with the “views” that I got. I can still hope that the Mediterranean “Scopoli’s” race of Cory’s will get officially elevated one day, though.

Proper seawatch attire   Hey, Africa!

After Miriam joined me on the beach, we packed our things and headed out of town to the cliffs overlooking the Strait. When we arrived at our chosen watchpoint, we were treated to blindingly gorgeous views of the mid-morning sunlight shining on the sea ahead of Morocco. A few Thekla’s Larks and Goldfinches kept us company while we waited for the large migrants to show up. The day’s movements got off to a somewhat slow start, but by noon we had seen a handful of Short-toed Snake-Eagles making the crossing between the continents. Knowing that it was a bit early in the season to expect jaw-dropping diversity and high counts, we elected to move on to our next stop, Gibraltar.

The rental car company, unsurprisingly and understandably, had forbidden us from bringing our vehicle across the international border at La Linea. Word on the street said crossing over on foot was much quicker and easier anyway, so we found a parking spot and passed through customs hassle-free. We decided to play tourist for a little while and joined a guided bus trip to the Upper Rock, hoping to get a taste of everything Gibraltar has to offer without spending our whole afternoon hoofing it from place to place. We were not disappointed. Our chauffeur was knowledgeable and entertaining, and the views we encountered were pretty impressive.

Clear the runway!    Port side

I kept an eye out for wildlife as we drove along the narrow roads that wind their way up the Rock. Our guide told Miriam that the Barbary Partridge we were looking for are often quite difficult to find, favoring the most natural areas of their only home in mainland Europe. On the other hand, we had no trouble at all locating the best known residents of the territory, the Barbary Macaques. These tailless monkeys live a charmed life in the nature sanctuary above Gibraltar, and they’ve grown quite accustomed to human presence. Although origins of the population are unknown, they’ve inhabited the Rock as long as history remembers. Today the macaques probably qualify as semi-wild, unrestrained and free but heavily managed. Food is provided to incentivize staying out of the city proper, and population control methods have also been utilized. Seeing the famous “apes” in person after hearing so much about them was a fun experience.

Tour staff repeatedly delivered the common sense warning not to feed or touch the primates, but evidently no one informed them not to touch us. Several individuals hopped aboard to inspect our hair for parasites and our pockets for snacks. It was a pretty cool experience, though I could’ve done without the cheeky gnawing on my scalp.

Hitchhiker Sometimes...I do think some evil...
The latest fashion Life is good

Our bus route led us to a few more traditional tourist stops, including the Great Siege Tunnels and the subterranean concert venue at St. Michael’s Cave. All in all, it was a nice break from the high intensity birding that still provided us with a little nature-based fun in addition to the cultural and architectural stuff.

Cool blues This place is pretty underground
Do you have a flag? The Top of the Rock

When we finally returned to Spain and our rental, we started the drive up into the mountains. Our sleeping arrangements were situated on the scenic cliffs of Ronda, where we enjoyed a delicious traditional meal before settling down for the night. Despite brief breather in Gibraltar, we were already back to plotting an early morning itinerary based on eBird hotspots with peak avian activity. The ride never ends!

Year List Update, February 22 – 216 Species (+ Kentish Plover, Northern Gannet, Cory’s Shearwater, Sandwich Tern, Great Skua, Short-toed Snake-Eagle)

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Do You Wanna See Doñana?

We departed from Seville under cover of darkness, driving towards the Atlantic coast. There was an hour of drive time to go before our predawn appointment with the Discovering Doñana tour company, an outfitter that offers access to Spain’s most famous national park. The public is not permitted to enter the majority of the vast wetland and forest habitats, widely regarded as one of the most important migration stopover sites in all of Europe. The reserve is also home to several endangered and endemic species, including the Iberian Lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle. A handful of options exist for exploring the interior of Doñana, but this particular operation came highly recommended by my good buddy Ben. Miriam and I reached the established meeting point in El Rocío just before sunrise, and the desk staff introduced us to our guide, Maria. As we loaded our gear into the 4×4, Maria give us a bit of background on her experience as a wildlife biologist, explaining that she specialized in studying Eagle-Owls and other raptors. We set off on the dusty trail to the park gates, hoping to locate some interesting wildlife in the early hours of the day.

We first passed La Rocina lagoon, noting foraging flocks of Greater Flamingos and spying the silhouettes of Iberian Magpies streaking overhead. We then journeyed through the Coto del Rey, the former royal hunting woodlands, where we came across a set of muddy puddles. Maria pulled over and hopped out to check the ground for tracks. We were stunned by the number and diversity of species that had left their soggy footprints alongside the road. Tiny paw impressions on either side of the water were evidence of a Common Genet that bounded through the area, and the larger ones with deep claw marks were a match for European Badger. A few different Wild Boar had apparently come to the watering hole, and avian trace included Eurasian Magpie and owl prints that Maria identified as Barn Owl based on size. We even saw a male Sparrowhawk standing at the edge of one pool, though he didn’t leave any visible signs of his visit once he flew off. Finding Iberian Lynx tracks was a real treat, but that was regrettably the closest we came to encountering the world’s rarest wildcat. Striking out with this wily predator was not terribly surprising, and I probably used up my lynx luck with the individual I met in Denali, Alaska a decade ago. Undaunted by the absence of the elusive feline, we continued onwards into the heart of Doñana.

We soon reached the boundary between forest and marsh, where we traded cork oak and umbrella pine for bulrushes and scattered shrubs. With the wide variety of fauna present in the region, it is easy to understand Doñana’s history as a private hunting zone. We observed both Red and Fallow Deer herds during our tour, and Red-legged Partridges were rarely far away throughout the morning. Songbirds were also abundant and vocal, with Blackcaps, Robins, Chaffinches, and Serins all adding their songs to the chorus. I also briefly glimpsed a Firecrest flitting among the branches of a roadside tree.

As we scanned with our scopes from the edge of a clearing, Maria pointed out a pale raptor perched on the opposite side. We got our optics on it and confirmed its identity as a young Spanish Imperial Eagle. We felt fortunate to cross paths the signature bird of Doñana, a true Spain specialty! This rare Iberian endemic wound up being the 700th bird species on my life list, a true honor. A second individual arrived on the scene a short time later, and we got to watch the two interact with one another from our distant vantage point. Although adults are quite similar in appearance to the familiar Golden Eagle, immature Imperials are lighter in coloration. Their large size and powerful build still make them stand out from smaller birds of prey. The same field also produced Red Kite and Black-shouldered Kite, and a pair of Great Spotted Cuckoos were putting on a show as they flew noisily from bush to bush. They had likely only just returned from Africa for the breeding season, but they seemed to be already on the lookout for a magpie nest where they could deposit their offspring. Before we returned to our vehicle, Maria directed our attention to the pit trap of a larval antlion in the sand at our feet. Not all predators are as conspicuous and dramatic as an eagle, but these voracious insects are every bit as fierce, if not more so!

Most of the wetland habitat we drove through was quite dry. Even so, the vistas were striking and there was plenty of action to be found. Several bushes dotting the extensive plains served as perches for the Southern Gray Shrike, which we observed aggressively chasing Hoopoes. I also added a duo of Eurasian Griffons, a small flock of European Golden-Plovers, and a Song Thrush that vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. I got a better look at some Calandra Larks, and Maria pointed out a cooperative Thekla’s Lark that allowed close study to focus on the traits which distinguish this lookalike species from its more common Crested cousins. The periscopic necks of Common Cranes peered out of the scrub as they searched for prey, though a few family groups appeared anxious to get a headstart their northbound migration. We eventually arrived at some deeper ponds that still retained their water, and these were predictably bustling with activity compared to the parched surroundings.

Eurasian Spoonbills swept their namesake beaks in search of prey alongside the flamingos and storks, and we also picked up Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, and Black-tailed Godwit. Western Swamphens stalked the shallows, and a few Common Pochards emerged from the reeds when Marsh-Harriers and Buzzards disturbed the peace of the waterside community. Miriam led me to a Sardinian Warbler that had materialized while she was photographing wagtails, pipits, and shorebirds, and we scarfed down some bits of sandwich to keep our bodies operating at full capacity.

When we finally finished up the tour and returned to El Rocío, we thanked Maria profusely for her guidance and help on our fantastic outing. After saying good-bye, Miriam and I began to talk strategy about our plans for the remainder of the day. We surveyed the shores of La Rocina one last time, and I was able to identify and check off Common Ringed Plover. Before leaving the national park for good, we decided the hit up the publicly accessible visitor center at El Acebuche. As much as we had adored every second of our Doñana adventure, settling for shadowy, first light glimpses of a bird as handsome as the Iberian Magpie seemed wrong. I had read that the species was “unmissable” at Acebuche, so we drove down to see for ourselves if we could get a better view. Sure enough, large family groups of magpies were moving around the area, but photographing them satisfactorily proved to be a challenge. Every bit as crafty and clever as any other corvid, the blue-winged birds are pretty good at steering clear of humans when they want to. A throng of screaming children, evidently visiting the park on a field trip, kept the magpies skulking in the shade at first. Following their raucous calls and tracking their movements through the branches, we caught a lucky break when they worked up the courage to begin scrounging in the open once again.

In addition to exhibiting engaging behavior and gorgeous plumage, Iberian Magpies are taxonomically fascinating. More closely related to the Gray Jay and its kin than they are to true magpies, Iberians were long considered to be the same species as the Azure-winged Magpie of eastern Asia. Genetic studies have revealed that these isolated populations have been evolving separately for up to a few million years, a remarkable case of relict distribution from a once more expansive range rather than a situation where a pretty bird was introduced half a world away as some had previously assumed. After getting our fill of crippling views and passable photos, Miriam and I took our leave of the magpies to continue south to Tarifa.

We reasoned that we’d have time for a stop or two on the drive down, and we ended up choosing the area surrounding Vejer de la Frontera. The marshes and cliffs near the town have become favorite haunts of reintroduced Northern Bald Ibis, a critically endangered species with only a few hundred surviving individuals. The experimental Spanish population is free-flying and breeding successfully in the wild, but they are not yet considered established and self-sustaining. Even so, successes for any individuals of a species so rare are a benefit to the entire population, and I’m fascinated by these kinds of intense conservation efforts. The ibis were absent from their nesting cliffs at Barca de Vejer when we arrived, so we checked out the wetlands where they feed down the coast at Barbate. Yellow-legged Gull, Common Redshank, House-Martin, and Linnet were welcome lifers all, and it was pretty cool to see Greenshanks on their home turf, but our targets were still no-shows.

Miriam suggested that we return to the roadside cliffs and watch for the ibis to return for the night. We set up camp in a nearby parking lot and stood post as the sun sank lower in the sky. Dozens of Cattle Egrets began flying in to a roost site in the reeds opposite the colony, later joined by a handful of Little Egrets. Hundreds of Jackdaws swirled overhead before settling in the trees, then the stalks above the egrets, then the trees again. We sadly saw no sign of the Bald Ibis, though we later learned that they were only just beginning to prospect the cliffs for this year’s breeding season and typically don’t roost at the nest site when they don’t have nests to tend to. Even so, we scored a pretty killer consolation prize when I looked up to see a huge Eurasian Eagle-Owl sailing along the wooded ridge above us. Even in the fading light, we enjoyed great views as the nocturnal predator headed out to hunt. It returned with a kill only a few minutes after flying out of view, floating into the trees and emerging a moment later empty-taloned. Watching a giant owl deliver prey to its unseen nest was not an expected goal for this vacation, but I didn’t know how badly I wanted it until I saw it unfolding in front of me!

At last, it was too dark to see, and the diurnal birds had all settled down for the evening. Miriam and I gathered our gear and returned to our car, wholly satisfied with the events of our sunrise-to-sunset exploration efforts. We discovered that our lodging situation in Tarifa was located right on the beachfront, next to a restaurant, with a clear view of the Strait of Gibraltar. Not a bad place to hang one’s hat for the night! Our miniature safari in Doñana turned out to be one of the clear highlights of our trip, and I was grateful for the chance to see such an incredible landscape up close and personal. Maybe we’ll find an excuse to go back someday: I’d love to see that park in a different season under different conditions! Only time will tell if and when such a wonderful opportunity will present itself again.

Year List Update, February 21 – 211 Species (+ Greater Flamingo, Iberian Magpie, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Firecrest, Eurasian Blackcap, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Red Kite, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Black-shouldered Kite, Southern Gray Shrike, Eurasian Griffon, Thekla’s Lark, European Golden-Plover, Song Thrush, Little Egret, Glossy Ibis, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Western Swamphen, Common Pochard, Sardinian Warbler, Common Ringed Plover, Yellow-legged GullCommon Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common House-Martin, Eurasian Linnet, Eurasian Eagle-Owl)

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The Lords of La Mancha

Walking along the cobblestone streets of Almagro, just as the first hints of light began to lift the shadows from the buildings, felt like a stroll through the pages of a storybook. The traditional appearance of the town is strongly evocative of Don Quixote’s legendary journey, and I felt inspired to sally forth on a quest of my own. My goals, however, were far more tangible and realistic than the those of the famous knight errant. We loaded up the car to the tune of a European Blackbird singing in the darkness before driving west to the Campo de Calatrava.

The expansive agricultural fields of La Mancha are home to a variety of birds that historically inhabited the Spanish steppes. As critical habitat across Europe continues to shrink and disappear, these open spaces provide an important refuge for a number of charismatic species. There are areas in Andalusia where some can be found in small numbers, but Campo de Calatrava offered much better odds of seeing our targets. Once we turned off the pavement onto the dirt paths that cross the region, we encountered common grassland dwellers like Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Red-legged Partridge, and Northern Lapwing. Soon enough, we spied the first of the “steppe big five,” the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Two of the intricately-patterned birds were resting in a plot of dirt, and I could hear the squawking calls of a large flock further down the road.

As we slowly made our way north, a grove of olive trees came into view up ahead. Nearly a hundred truly gigantic birds were strutting around on the adjacent hillside, several of them flapping their powerful wings and taking to the air at the sight of our vehicle. These were Great Bustards, one of the heaviest living birds capable of flight. Neck and neck for the title with their cousin the Kori Bustard, male Greats usually weigh around 20-35 pounds, and the largest verified specimen clocked in at 46. These massive creatures are impressively imposing even at a distance, standing over 3 feet tall with a wingspan approaching 9 feet. Miriam was a touch uncomfortable with the huge size of these modern day dinosaurs, but I was completely thrilled to finally meet my quarry in the flesh. While I watched the burly birds going about their morning routine, a strange bubbling sound alerted me to the presence of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. A lone individual took off from the field, but I later spotted a pair heading towards a noisy congregation of Pin-tails. Several pheasant-sized Little Bustards were seen flying in behind the Greats and loitering along the periphery of the sandgrouse gang. We tracked down a single Stone Curlew hiding in the shade of an olive tree, and we also ticked Jackdaw, Calandra Lark, Greenfinch, and Spanish Sparrow before departing the fields. The day was off to a fantastic start, and I was hopeful that our lucky streak would continue at our next destination.

The primary reason Miriam and I traveled so far on our first afternoon in Spain was to visit Tablas de Daimiel National Park. We might have taken our chances seeking the bustards and sandgrouse at more southerly locations if it weren’t for a highly-desirable species that inhabits the scattered wetlands of La Mancha. Both of us had ranked the unusual Bearded Reedling near the top of our global “most wanted” lists, and we weren’t going to pass on the opportunity to make chase. Tablas also promised a wide array of other interesting possibilities, so we were eager to begin exploring the trails. Nesting White Storks greeted us at the park entrance, and we added Little Grebe, Black Redstart, and Hoopoe to our life lists before we even got out of the car. Common Cranes could be heard bugling in the distance once we opened the doors, and there were Chiffchaffs, Meadow Pipits, and a European Robin working the lawn next to our parking space. A pair of Great Tits and a Blue Tit fluttered through the trees at the start of the boardwalk that led out over the pools, where we found waterbirds like Coot and Graylag Goose.

There was a lot of activity visible in the reeds, and we took great care to inspect all of the movement that we observed among the swaying stems. Penduline-Tits gave us a start with their gray heads and dark masks, followed by Reed Buntings and a few Cetti’s Warblers clambering from stalk to stalk. All were lovely lifers, but not the birds we were looking for. Finally, Miriam paused, saying that she heard the diagnostic, pinging “pew” call of a Reedling. I listened intently and confirmed her discovery, though we were both surprised when a band of more than a dozen mustachioed songbirds popped out of the vegetation on the opposite side of the walkway. The bizarre, long-tailed fluffballs bounced over to us as if to say hello, delivering fantastic views of their acrobatic antics. The black facial ornaments and soft gray-blue heads of the males paired beautifully with their bright orange bodies and the delicate designs on their wings, making them stand out in the dull, yellowed backdrop of their grassy home. The females, though more subdued in coloration, were equally adorable and cooperative. My photos hardly do justice to these delightful beasties, which are so unique in terms of genetics, morphology, and behavior that they have been placed in their own monotypic family. After a few minutes keeping us company, the Beardies took flight and whizzed off into the distance. The encounter had lived up to our high expectations, and it was well worth the extended detour from Andalusia.

We ended up spending a sizable chunk of our day at Tablas de Daimiel, taking all of the sights and sounds that the national park had to offer. The water levels throughout the area were rather low, so we didn’t see as many ducks and other swimming species as I was expecting to. Green Sandpipers and Common Moorhens were still working the fringes of the shallows, and a carefree Water Rail foraging in the open was a nice surprise. New landbirds included Stonechat, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Bluethroat, and Green Woodpecker. As the temperature began to rise, storks, cranes, and large kettle of Black Kites took advantage of the increase in thermal action. An observation blind at the Laguna Permanente was a nice spot for a stakeout, and we noted Gray Herons, Great Cormorants, and a Ruff feeding among some Lapwings.

We had another especially long drive ahead of us, so we left the park in the early afternoon. A small crew of Bearded Reedlings came out to say good bye as we were snapping our final photographs of the scenery. Miriam and I paused to get better acquainted with the iconic White Storks at close range before we turned the car southwest and began making our way towards Seville.

The trip from Daimiel to Seville was the longest stretch of on-the-road hours we experienced during the whole vacation. Even so, we made good time and arrived in the Macarena neighborhood of the city before sunset. Once we parked our car, we went for a walk along the side streets, finding Serin, Common Swift, and Lesser Kestrel before dusk. At the recommendation of our host, Miriam and I strolled across town on one of the older roads, which brought us to the spectacular Seville Cathedral. After some tasty late night tapas, we found our way back to the apartment and got into bed. Our first full day exploring Spain had been a brilliant success!

Year List Update, February 20 – 180 Species (+ European Blackbird, Red-legged Partridge, Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Northern Lapwing, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Great Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Jackdaw, Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Calandra Lark, Spanish Sparrow, European Goldfinch, European Greenfinch, White Stork, Little Grebe, Black Redstart, Eurasian Hoopoe, Common Crane, Common Chiffchaff, Meadow Pipit, European Robin, Great Tit, Eurasian Blue Tit, Eurasian Coot, Graylag Goose, Eurasian Penduline-Tit, Reed Bunting, Cetti’s Warbler, Bearded Reedling, European Stonechat, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Black Kite, Green Sandpiper, Barn Swallow, Eurasian Moorhen, Water Rail, BluethroatGray Heron, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Common Chaffinch, Black-headed Gull, Ruff, European Serin, Common Swift, Lesser Kestrel)

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¡Hola, España!

I was fortunate enough to travel extensively in the United States and Canada with my family when I was growing up, reaching all 50 states before I started college. In my undergrad years, I also made trips to St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic, and Cancun where I experienced a taste of the Neotropics. All of my adventures thus far had been confined to the Northern-Western Hemisphere. When Miriam and I began planning our February vacation back in October, however, I was presented with the opportunity to change that. After batting around several options, we settled on an expedition to southern Spain. I was excited for my first time visiting Europe, and I did a lot of homework leading up to our departure so we could make the most of our week-long holiday.

My main goal was to strike a balance between locations, activities, and birding targets that would make for a memorable experience. As usual, I reached out to others who had gone before me and picked their brains for ideas. Ben Barkley was able to provide me with a lot of great intel, and Doug Futuyma was kind enough to pass along the invaluable Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain. The Andalucía Bird Society was also a fantastic resource for learning about the most spectacular sites and recent observations of interest. After several long months of studying my new Birds of Europe field guide and trying to memorize vocalizations on the Spanish Birds Sounds app, I felt that I was finally ready.

Miriam and I departed from JFK on the evening of Sunday, February 18. Our overnight plane ride across the Atlantic inexplicably had two food servings which resulted in frustrating light and sound disturbances. Miriam bravely sacrificed her eye mask and ear plugs since I was the only driver registered to our rental car and needed to be awake and alert for the drive to our lodgings. Against the odds, I managed to get some much needed rest before we landed in Casablanca. Our layover was scheduled to last a few hours: a great opportunity to get started on the birding and add some checks for an African list! The coveted spot of First Bird of the Trip went to Lesser Black-backed Gull, which was at least a year bird. My first Old World lifer was White Wagtail, with several individuals strutting along the runway and flying around inside the terminal. A Eurasian Kestrel darted in to perch outside the window, and raptor circling in the distance was revealed as a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier when we raised our optics. It wasn’t long before we were heading out to the little propellor plane for the final leg of our flight across the Mediterranean.

When we finally landed in Málaga, we hopped aboard a shuttle to pick up our rental car. I was honestly a little apprehensive about our foreign road trip at first. The trials of traveling hundreds of miles over a full week in a different country are not to be taken lightly, and I wasn’t familiar with the brand of our diesel-powered temporary vehicle. Once our journey got underway, though, I realized my worries were misplaced. Driving in Spain is a dream compared to New York, with light traffic, observant and considerate motorists, well-marked roads and signage, and remarkably efficient roundabouts everywhere. It took nearly four hours to get to our bed in Almagro, but it was smooth sailing all the way.

The scenery along the route north was beautiful, with wooded ridges and green fields stretching out as far as the eye could see. We managed to spot a few new birds despite the difficulty of identifying totally unfamiliar species at 120 kph. Miriam and I learned quickly that the hefty and ubiquitous Wood-Pigeons can look surprisingly similar to birds of prey at a glance. Eurasian Magpies are fortunately conspicuous and distinctive, and large flocks of Red-billed Choughs were seen wheeling in the skies. Clear views confirmed that at least some of the starlings we were seeing were definitively Spotless, but most of the smaller passerines were left without names when they flitted up from the roadside as we whizzed past. The sun went down around the time we reached the border of Castilla-La Mancha, and I was pleased to see a classic windmill silhouetted on a hilltop. Almagro was a lovely little town with charming stone architecture, and we enjoyed our stay even though we only got to see it in the dark. With a full belly and a weary head, I crashed hard at the end of the night. The excitement was only just beginning, and we had an early start approaching in the morning.

Year List Update, February 19 – 133 Species (+ Lesser Black-backed Gull, White Wagtail, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Cattle Egret, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Spotless StarlingRed-billed Chough)

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The Music of the Night

Nocturnal birding is an experience quite unlike typical daylight outings. Without the benefit of clear vision to locate and identify targets, it is often necessary to step outside one’s comfort zone and rely on auditory cues or brief, dimly-lit views. It can be a challenge to clinch satisfying encounters when the primary human sense is so limited. That being said, most of the species that come out after dark are truly remarkable creatures that are worth the extra effort. The distinctive vocalizations of many nightbirds are just as impressive a reward as an actual sighting of the vocalizer, some arguably more so. Fleeting glimpses in the gloom lend an air of mystery to the shadowy quarry, and every once in a while it’s possible to get lucky with a little artificial light. Combined with brilliant astronomy study prospects and the increased activity of mammals around dawn and dusk, “after hours” birding is a very appealing, entertaining option for a nature walk!

Although I’ve been keeping up with my eBird resolution of at least one checklist per day, the vast majority of my observations in the past few weeks have been brief surveys on my commute to and from work. I was looking forward to mixing things up a bit during my weekends. After regaling Miriam with this year’s Superb Owl stories, she suggested a predawn expedition to try for the birds before they headed to bed. We found ourselves in South Shore Suffolk in the wee hours of the morning, and we enjoyed a reasonable degree of success with our goals. I picked out the deep, resonant hoots of a Great Horned Owl singing in the distance when we stopped in Patchogue. Moving on to Brookhaven, close Screech-Owl encounters were a surprise treat just before sunrise. A tiny shadow stealthily flew out of the woods to perch directly above our heads, searching for the source of my intruder impression. When it returned to the forest across the road, it began a chorus of whinnying along with its unseen partner. I always appreciate the opportunity to watch these nocturnal predators going about their lives in such close proximity to our own homes. I’d love for this owl luck to hold out on my imminent trip to Spain!

Miriam and I made a few more stops in the morning on our way back to Nassau, but rain and sleepiness sent us home by midday. Conditions were similarly damp the following weekend, drizzling throughout the afternoon while we tried again for the Pileated Woodpecker frequenting the Jayne’s Hill area in Melville. We paused for a delightful and delicious happy hour at Rustic Root, buying time as we waited from the sun to set and the forecast to improve. When we emerged from the pub we found that the rain had indeed stopped. My co-pilot had a very specific target in mind for the evening, so we headed off to Stillwell Woods Park. Listening intently as we walked out the trail, I thought I heard quiet kissy sounds coming from the skies over the field ahead. I stopped, and Miriam froze with anticipation. We both strained our ears for any confirmation of my suspicions. “PEENT.”

Collective Scolopax

Mild evenings on the cusp of spring see the American Woodcock’s glorious return to the stage. The recent warm weather had us hoping to connect with the weird woodland waders, and we had apparently stumbled upon one of the first performers of the season. These cryptic forest dwellers can be exceedingly difficult to track down during most of the year: eBird currently contains no other records anywhere on Long Island for 2018 so far. When breeding season rolls around and the males start sky dancing, it’s an entirely different story. Miriam was positively giddy to be reunited with her favorite bird, and we spotted the charming soloist fluttering past us several times during his display. He eventually quieted down and retreated to the brush, leaving us alone in the darkening meadow. I wish him good fortune when rival males and interested females join him at the courtship site.

The buzzy love song of the woodcock is just one of the iconic voices of the nocturnal soundscape of spring. As winter fades, forests and wetlands are filled with the lively chorus of nightjars and the bizarre cries of rails returning from the south. Owls hoot, trill, and shriek to defend their territories, while tree frogs, foxes, and raccoons lend some non-avian talent to the mix. And high above it all, if you listen carefully, you can hear the myriad calls of countless nocturnal migrants riding the winds northwards on their journey home. After a long winter without this vibrant night music, I’ll have front row tickets when the show finally begins anew.

Year List Update, February 17 – 123 Species (+ American Woodcock, Double-crested Cormorant)

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Simply Superb

Seeking out Strigiformes on Superb Owl Sunday is now something of a personal tradition. This “holiday’s” efforts were much more subdued than last year, since I elected to sleep in rather than wake up before the sun. There were several factors that led me to this decision, which seems counterintuitive for locating nocturnal birds. It’s been a bit of a quiet year for forest-dwelling northern species, so I wasn’t too optimistic about my odds of finding Saw-whets or Long-ears in the wooded areas of the Island. A reasonably breezy forecast also put a damper on my expectations for Short-eared Owl, since these aerial hunters are typically most active in still conditions. What’s more, the weathermen warned of rain arriving in the afternoon. My search would be a short, targeted strike limited to the first half of the day. These criteria left me with 4 good targets: Snowy, Great Horned, Eastern Screech, and Barn.

A little eBird recon revealed that Jamaica Bay was the best place to start my day. I set out on the trails shortly after sunrise, hoping to find my two open-country owls early so I could move on to subsequent sites. The first sighting of interest that greeted me was a small mixed flock of sparrows foraging in the brush. Pishing the birds out of hiding delivered my first Field and American Tree Sparrows of the year. When I turned my scope on a Barn Owl nest, I was fortunate enough to spy a spectral face squinting out of the darkness at me. Jamaica Bay is one of the few reliable places for in our region for this species, and it had been over a year since my last encounter. The refuge’s most conspicuous box failed to produce any offspring last season after an individual apparently died inside the structure. Fortunately, there are many boxes scattered throughout the Bay, and at least a few of these are known to be occupied currently. A new year means new opportunities. I’ve got my fingers crossed for more fluffy owlet cuteness this spring!

Several other nature enthusiasts kept me company as I continued out the West Pond loop. I was able to relocate 2 Snowy Owls roosting in the marshes to the north. At least 4 different Snowies have been frequenting the islands of Jamaica Bay in recent weeks, part of the ongoing irruption taking place this winter. The birds were far too distant for decent photographs: no doubt an influence on their choice of real estate! The abundance of prey in the frozen wetlands are another major draw, with countless waterfowl and small mammals available for the taking. At the moment, as usual, the powerful predators were content to rest, surveying their temporary kingdom from their icy perches as they waited for nightfall. With a pair of species under my belt, tying my record from last year, I hopped in the car and headed east.

Since the temperature was quite agreeable for an overcast day in early February, I was fairly confident that the accommodating Screech-Owl at Massapequa Preserve would be sunning itself at the entrance to its tree hole. Sure enough, Old Reliable was blissfully basking and readily visible as soon as I walked up to the creekside vantage point. Being so close to the Suffolk border, I briefly abandoned my Superb Owl search to chase the Eared Grebe at Oak Beach. At first, there were only Horned Grebes to be found, though the Barrow’s Goldeneye was present among its Common cousins. I ended up calling it quits after an hour long stakeout, but I was promptly summoned back by John Gluth. He kindly stayed on the bird until I made it back, and then I was on my way once again. Unfortunately, the resident Great Horns had made themselves scarce by the time I reached Hempstead Lake. Their absence was only a minor disappointment for my fantastic morning, and I returned home with a successful owl hat trick just as the rain began to fall.

I may not have racked up big totals or broad diversity this year, but I still managed to track down a larger variety and number of individuals than my previous attempts. Considering that 2017 only featured singletons of 2 different species, that’s not a particularly remarkable achievement. Owls are rarely easy to find, however, and any day with multiple encounters is a mighty fine day in my book. I’ve also got a shot at seeing some new species coming up in a few short weeks, so hopefully these aren’t my last Superb Owls of the month!

Year List Update, February 4 – 121 Species (+ Field Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Barn Owl, Eared Grebe)

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Long Island Life

It’s been a bit of a slow year so far. By this time in 2017, I’d already been on trips that took me to New York’s offshore watersConnecticut, the Adirondacks, and Canada in search of rare birds. Even in 2016, I’d enjoyed a Montauk outing more successful than this month’s visit, as well as the surprise discovery of some pelicans at Jones Beach. I’ve linked so many previous blog posts because, frankly, I don’t have much to offer in this one. No lifers, no journeys beyond the Island, and few rarities outside holdovers from December. All the same, I would be remiss to pass on updating my adventure log. I don’t want to fall into the trap of inconsistent writing, so here are a few stories and images from the back half of January.

One of my best achievements in the first month of 2018 is keeping up the daily checklist challenge for eBird. I’ve been closely monitoring the species observed on my commute to and from work, and I’ve also enjoyed a few dedicated exploration efforts each weekend. Driving up and down the Ocean Parkway can often prove productive, especially when combined with stops at hotspots. I was treated to a close encounter with a confiding Rough-legged Hawk, a much more impressive year bird than the Red-winged Blackbirds I spied flying overhead. At JFK Wildlife Sanctuary, I scored a double whammy on American Bittern sightings, though I’m not certain if they were separate individuals or the same bird at different locations. I really shouldn’t complain about my year when I’ve had such good luck with this tricky species of late.

A visit to Jones Beach found unbelievable concentrations of duck hunters blasting away at waterfowl all along the bay. The warm weather must have drawn them all out before the rapidly approaching end of the hunting season, and birding was unsurprisingly hampered by their activity. I moved on to Point Lookout, hoping to see some of the unusual species that have been hanging around. Enormous rafts of scaup and Brant were packed tight between the jetties, taking refuge from the countless guns going off in the inlet. The Harlequins were out and about, but there was no sign of the King Eider crew which had recently been favoring this stretch of beach. I still appreciated the chance to observe Greater Scaup at length, as they floated and foraged nearly at my feet. An unarmed human at such close range must have seemed like less of a threat in comparison to their options on the other side of the rocks.

I was able to locate at least one Lesser Scaup among the throng, and this provided a fantastic study opportunity. Every single field mark that differentiates the two species was readily visible in direct comparison, a delightful and infrequent treat.

A few Ruddy Turnstones working the boulders were the only year birds I added at Point Lookout, but I did catch a glimpse of a Great Blue Heron after dark: a slender silhouette slinking through the shadowy shallows at a channel near Miriam’s house. Dad discovered a Glaucous Gull at Hendrickson during the work week, but it was long gone when we returned in the evening. I was satisfied with a consolation female Wood Duck paddling with the Mallards at the creek. My Friday ended earlier than expected, so  I drove out to Oak Beach in search of a Barrow’s Goldeneye and an Eared Grebe, perhaps repeat visitors from last winter. The female goldeneye was identifiable even at a distance in the fading light, but the grebe was a no-show.

Miriam accompanied me on yet another visit to Point Lookout, where she got acquainted with Harlequin Ducks for the very first time. The dapper little divers certainly lived up to her high expectations. A Snowy Owl was a welcome surprise, rarely seen on the western side of Jones Inlet, but it was less surprising to see careless observers repeatedly pushing closer until it took off and flew elsewhere. We headed out to Oak Beach again, but all of the local birds had vacated the scene, replaced by eight unexpected parasailers. I dragged myself out on Sunday despite foggy, rainy conditions, hoping to get the Eared Grebe or a better look at the Barrow’s. Visibility from the roadside was awful, and incredibly there were gunshots ringing across the water even in the pea-soup-thick fog. I decided not to hang around too long with that mess, instead retreating to Jones where the skies were somewhat clearer and a hunting Peregrine Falcon gave me front row seats to its aerial show.

My final year bird of the year’s initial month was a good one, and under pretty awesome circumstances. While driving home one night, I noticed a dark shape perched atop a light post alongside the parkway. The feathery “ears” atop its head and its burly form were unmistakable: a drive-by Great Horned Owl. This was a wonderful nocturnal surprise, especially along with the Red Fox that I had just seen prowling the shoulder of the road. Thus, January is behind me, and even though it dragged on a bit I still managed to have a good time on the birding scene and in “real life.” February is full of promise, and only two short weeks remain until the arrival of winter break. I’m coming for you, Spain!

Year List Update, February 2 – 117 Species (+ Rough-legged Hawk, Red-winged Blackbird, Ruddy Turnstone, Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Great Horned Owl)

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Settling the Scores

I suffer from acute birding FOMO. Passing up on opportunities for exploration and discovery, especially alongside friends, bums me out. Last year, Taylor and Brent worked to organize a grassroots bird survey in the style of Audubon’s official Christmas Bird Counts. The circle they established included some woefully underbirded but promising habitat along the North Shore that is not covered in any existing CBCs. I was excited to help out in the inaugural Northport Winter Bird Count, but unforeseen circumstances got in the way. A winter storm forced the rescheduling of the annual Brooklyn Paulagic trip, which moved me off the wait list and into a seat on the boat. As much as I wanted to assist my friends, I was hard-pressed to say no to the promise of Dovekies, puffins, and other elusive seabirds. I certainly didn’t regret my choice to join the offshore expedition, but I felt bad about bailing on the count team. When count preparation rolled around once again for 2018, I was eager to set things right.

I was assigned territory in the Huntington sector of the count circle, which made me responsible for all points of interest from the harbor south to the survey area border. I was also tasked to check up on Centerport’s Tung Ting Pond at dawn, a critical spot for rare waterfowl. After some fruitless nocturnal birding in the wee hours of the morning, I headed to the pond to wait for sunrise. I was soon joined by Tim Dunn, who was the only counter working on the entirety of the Centerport sector. I let him know that I was happy to relieve him of this tallying effort, and he gladly agreed. After a quick scan and a pleasant catch-up, Tim set out to cover the rest of his expansive turf. Rafts of Canvasbacks, increasingly rare on the Island away from traditional sites like this one, were obvious at first light thanks to their namesake white upperparts. As the sun increasingly illuminated the hundreds of roosting Canada Geese, I was able to pick out a Greater White-fronted Goose and a Cackling Goose among the throng. Both birds had been seen in the week leading up to the big day, but it was crucial to catch them at their known nightly resting place before they took off to feed in some nearby field.

I added an adult Bald Eagle and a nice spread of ducks to my personal count list before returning to the Huntington area. The rest of the day was spent combing the town’s surroundings in search of all things avian. Armed with a list of potential hotspots provided by Brent, I cruised around in search of additional intriguing locations. Most of the sites I visited were small roadside parks and public waterfronts, but I also took some more extended walks through larger preserves like West Hills County Park and Froelich Farm. I accumulated a respectable tally of species, including goldeneye, flicker, creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet as new year birds. There were a few nice surprises along the way, such as a female Red-breasted Merganser on a tiny freshwater pond and a cooperative flock of Fish Crows that came to visit me before sundown.

After dusk, I met the other 12 participants at Changing Times Ale House for our compilation dinner. The available fare was solid pub grub, and we had a grand time swapping stories and counting up our totals. Out of the final count of 87 species, I was surprised to learn that I had contributed a few personal “saves” that would’ve otherwise been missed: American Coot, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. I was thankful for the opportunity to help out with this incipient count, and I look forward to seeing where the effort goes in the future.

Sunday morning brought conditions that were far more blustery and chilly than Saturday’s weather. I bundled myself up and struck out for Tiffany Creek Preserve in Oyster Bay, hoping to finally track down Nassau’s first ever Townsend’s Solitaire. I’d missed the long-staying rarity on my January 1st attempt, and after catching up with the King Eider and Ross’s Goose it was my most egregious remaining New Year’s dip. I arrived to find other birders departing the scene, stating that the bird had showed briefly at dawn before disappearing again. I set up shop atop the hill, watching and waiting. Cloud cover eventually gave way to clear skies, crowds of hopeful observers began to arrive, and despite the cold midmorning saw an uptick in avian activity. A pair of ravens passed overhead, croaking and diving in a coordinated courtship flight. When a flock of bluebirds flew in from the southeast, I went on high alert: the solitaire had apparently been seen in loose association with its fellow thrushes multiple times. Sure enough, someone spied our target flying in from the same direction a few minutes later. The svelte songbird picked berries from its favored juniper tree, offering distant but extended views before departing.

With Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I decided to spend my extra weekend hours at the East End of Long Island. I reached Hook Pond in East Hampton just as the sun was coming up, quickly picking out a pair of Tundra Swans. This is the most consistent location on the whole Island for these large, white birds, and they did not disappoint. A short time later, I was setting up my scope in a sheltered alcove along the backside of the Lighthouse Grill at Montauk Point. Strong northeast winds had been blowing throughout the night, and I hoped that they would provide a seabird show in the early morning. Nearly 100 Razorbills, good numbers of scoters and eiders, some flyby Red-necked Grebes, and a young Iceland Gull made my predawn drive worthwhile. Big Reed Pond was fairly quiet, save for a lone catbird, and I found another Iceland Gull at the Lake Montauk Inlet, also a first-cycle individual.

My next stop was Montauk Downs Golf Course, where I teamed up with Mike McBrien, who had also been seawatching at the Point. We set out across the fairways in search of grazing geese, eventually locating a trio of Snow Geese and a Pink-footed Goose at the far northern boundary of the course. With my targets secured, I hunted down a celebratory lunch at Townline BBQ in Wainscott. From there, I turned the car southwest towards Dune Road, where I tried my luck for rails and bitterns. Even though I couldn’t find any skulky wetland species, I was happy to spot a Snowy Owl perched on the ice along the marsh’s edge.

The day’s light was fading fast, but I had time to stop by the Mill Pond in Sayville and tick Eurasian Wigeon off my year list. These handsome ducks are annual on Long Island, but they’re usually just far enough away that I end up waiting until late in the year to chase them. This individual was on my route home and quite confiding, showing exceptionally well among the other assembled waterfowl. I crossed the bridge over the frozen Great South Bay and drove along the barrier islands to watch sunset from the Jones Beach parking lot. The wind was too strong for any owls to come out and hunt, but the atmosphere of the scene made for a nice end to my adventure.

Looking over my records from the past few years of serious listing, it seems like January 14th is always the day that I hit 100 species for my annual list. 2018’s first century bird was none other than the Townsend’s Solitaire: not bad! Maybe next year I’ll be able to beat my consistent pace and crack triple digits even earlier. It’s a silly goal, but it’s something to look forward to, at least!

Year List Update, January 15 – 110 Species (+ Canvasback, Hooded Merganser, Green-winged Teal, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Pintail, Greater White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Common Goldeneye, Northern Flicker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Eastern Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Common Merganser, Tundra Swan, White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter, Razorbill, Red-necked Grebe, Gray Catbird, Pink-footed Goose, Snow Goose, Eurasian Wigeon)

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